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It’s Coakley vs. Brown

No surprises as voters send front-runners to US Senate showdown

By Matt Viser and Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / December 9, 2009

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Attorney General Martha Coakley easily captured the Democratic nomination for the US Senate last night and took a giant step toward smashing the state’s political glass ceiling, as she parlayed her straightforward style and strong appeal among women into an overwhelming victory against a trio of male opponents.

Rolling up large margins in nearly every community in the state, Coakley, 56, became the first woman nominated by a major party for the US Senate in Massachusetts. She will face state Senator Scott P. Brown, who won the Republican Party’s nomination yesterday, in a Jan. 19 special election to fill the seat held for 47 years by the late Edward M. Kennedy.

Coakley beat her closest rival, US Representative Michael E. Capuano, 47 percent to 28 percent. City Year cofounder Alan Khazei had 13 percent of the vote, and Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen G. Pagliuca won 12 percent.

“They said that women don’t have much luck in Massachusetts politics - we believed that it was quite possible that that luck was about to change. And change it did tonight!’’ Coakley told jubilant supporters at the Sheraton Boston, spurring enthusiastic applause and chants of “Martha!’’ “Martha!’’

Coakley asked the crowd to acknowledge Kennedy not with a moment of silence, but with a round of applause. The crowd obliged.

In contrast to the excitement expressed last night by Coakley supporters, yesterday saw one of the lowest turnouts for a contested primary in state history, despite both Kennedy’s legacy and the fact that this was the first-ever statewide special election. Though some suburban communities reported a steady stream of voters, many polling places were nearly empty for long stretches.

While the Democratic candidates virtually mirrored each other on many issues, they came to the campaign from vastly different backgrounds and carried with them starkly different styles.

Pagliuca, an enormously wealthy venture capitalist, blitzed the airwaves and poured more than $7.6 million of his own money into the race as he touted his experience creating jobs. Khazei ran a lower-cost campaign using his work as a social entrepreneur as its foundation, but was unable to build anywhere near the type of grass-roots network necessary for a come-from-behind victory.

Capuano, a career politician, was considered to have the best chance to beat Coakley, as he repeatedly pushed his Washington experience and relied on the support of his colleagues in the congressional delegation. The only major communities he carried were Amherst and those such as Somerville, Cambridge, and Boston that are in his congressional district.

“We couldn’t catch up, simply put,’’ Capuano told supporters last night at the Fairmont Copley Plaza. “We did our best to narrow the gap and move forward, but in the final analysis, name recognition matters.’’

He also looked to his mother, who just turned 90, saying, “Mom, I was looking for a better present.’’

Although Pagliuca finished fourth, the atmosphere at his party, at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in the South End, was festive. The DJ twice played the Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing,’’ better known to sports fans as the song played at TD Garden to close out Boston Celtics victories.

“The kindness was incredible; I learned a lot,’’ Pagliuca said, promising to work with Coakley on his signature campaign issue: bringing more jobs to Massachusetts.

Khazei entered the Alcott ballroom at the Parker House hotel to the cheers of several hundred supporters.

“Running for the US Senate in Massachusetts for the seat vacated by Ted Kennedy has been one of the greatest privileges of my life,’’ he said.

The 50-year-old Brown, a three-term state senator from Wrentham, easily defeated Duxbury businessman Jack E. Robinson for the Republican nomination. Brown captured 89 percent of the vote to Robinson’s 11 percent.

Though the primary campaigns were largely cordial, the tenor is likely to change during the general election. Last night, Brown came out swinging, saying the last thing Washington and Massachusetts need is “another partisan placeholder in the United States Senate.”

“We can elect an independent voice for all of Massachusetts,’’ he said. “That’s the United States senator I promise to be.’’

Coakley, who has been eyeing a Senate seat for more than five years, was the first to get into the race, just days after Kennedy died on Aug. 25. It was the first open US Senate seat in a quarter century.

In many ways, she ran a highly disciplined campaign, jumping out with an early lead that she never relinquished. Her three opponents waited for her to stumble, but she never made any major gaffes.

She garnered broad support from across the state, winning urban areas such as Springfield, Quincy, and Lawrence by a 2-to-1 ratio. She also dominated in Berkshire County, including her native North Adams, and handily carried Middlesex County, where she was twice elected as district attorney.

“It’s a great day for women in Massachusetts,’’ said state Senate President Therese Murray, a major Coakley backer. “This is a first for us. It means that women in Massachusetts can now raise the money which brings them to the party so that they can dance. And she’s gonna dance.’’

Senator John F. Kerry joined elected officials onstage last night, saying he wanted Coakley as his new partner in Washington.

“The sound that you hear is the sound of the smashing of the glass ceiling into 1,000 parts,’’ Kerry said. “Martha Coakley is on her way to be the first woman ever elected to the Senate from Massachusetts.’’

The Kennedy family released a statement, saying, “We believe that Martha Coakley will represent the people of Massachusetts with honor and deep commitment.’’

Coakley received personal phone calls of congratulations last night from several of those close to the late senator, including his wife, Vicki, and two sons, Ted Kennedy Jr. and US Representative Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, and President Bill Clinton, Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, and Senator Paul G. Kirk Jr.

Democrats are planning to gather this morning in the Kennedy Room at the Parker House, where the three losing candidates will join Governor Deval Patrick and Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray to endorse Coakley.

Even with the high stakes, many voters said yesterday that they felt uninformed, that they did not know the Democratic candidates well enough to form a strong opinion.

“I voted out of ignorance, I have to tell you,’’ said Sally Lutz, a 67-year-old painter from Cambridge. “I voted how my husband and friends said they were voting. I just haven’t followed it.’’

“I was forgetting whether the election was today or tomorrow,’’ said her husband, Chris.

Few voters cited any issues that drove them to the polls. Sidewalks outside polling places - where scrums of campaign workers usually gather on election days with signs, pamphlets, and placards - remained empty. Most poll workers sat bored for much of the day, their noses stuck in books, newspapers, and magazines.

“I’m very disappointed,’’ said Maria Tomasia, an election official in New Bedford, which had anemic early turnout. “I thought it would be large turnout, considering it’s Kennedy’s seat. I thought in his honor, his memory, they’d go out in larger numbers, but they’re not.’’

Stephanie Ebbert, Andrea Estes, Michael Levenson, Eric Moskowitz, and Michael Rezendes of the Globe staff, and correspondent Jack Nicas contributed to this report.